The oil machine would not be able to function without a significant workforce toiling for long hours in challenging conditions. However, this work is invisible for the vast majority of the population who have been promised cheap and abundant energy by the industry for decades.
But what role do workers have to play in transforming the oil machine into something better?
Forty years on, trade unionist Jake Molloy recalls his first days working on North Sea oil platforms when the sector was at the cutting edge of British industry:
‘You get out there and just the sheer scale of it, you know the enormity of… of this island in the middle of the North Sea.’
Jake’s awe at the scale of the newly expanding oil machine was soon tempered by a realisation that the harshness of the North Sea’s climate was reflected in the regime that governed work on the platforms:
‘It was brutal. It was an employment relationship you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy because one wrong word, one wrong look at a manager, and he takes a dislike to you and that’s it. Because you were a contractor, you were just a number …’
These unforgiving relations were tempered by a sense of pride that the sector — which at the time was still predominantly controlled by large British and American firms — was working for the good of society at large, argues Jake:
‘There was this idea that we were in this new industry we were developing something which had never been done before and everything you did would benefit the country, benefit the nation — we were the pioneers if you like.’
Ewan Gibbs, Lecturer in Global Inequalities at the University of Glasgow, specialises in the history of energy and labour in Scotland. He shares Jake’s view of the significance that the early phase of the oil machine’s expansion had for wider society:
‘In the middle of the 20th century we might have thought about coal or other natural resources but I think oil from the closing decades of the 20th century is associated with Scotland’s economy, it’s perhaps seen as something that makes Scotland’s economy distinctive in a UK context as well, that it’s Scotland that hosts this huge technologically advanced agglomeration of activities around oil.’
That image is also one of a wealthy society, able to maintain the post-war British dream of the affluent worker, even as much of the rest of the country’s industrial base declined. This proved particularly significant in Scotland and other parts of the UK that experienced rapid deindustrialisation just as the oil was coming onstream:
‘I think there’s a coherent case for arguing that actually North Sea oil revenues – by inflating the value of the pound, increasing deflation which led to the decreasing competitiveness of British exports and also providing a revenue source for government during that period of economic reconstruction – actually helped make a lot of people relatively poor.’
The closure of coal mines in the UK came with steep social costs and through significant social conflict in the 1984–85 miners’ strike. Such memories are at the forefront of the minds of trade unionists who have joined together with environmental groups to call for a Just Transition — a blueprint that could provide a shift to well-paid green jobs for the workers who still tend to the oil machine today as the sector declines.
‘Everybody knew and has known for years that it’s going to run out, that oil wells will run dry, it’s just a question of time [...] Oil and gas workers now are very, very nervous about the future, very worried about what the future holds for them. You know, it’s often been likened to the pit closures back in the 80s,’ Jake says.
Given the role that revenues from the oil machine played in subsidising the decline of other industrial sectors, it is a matter of bitter irony that a Just Transition might now be held back precisely because the UK’s industrial base has declined so sharply. Jake can’t see any sign of it:
‘We need to transition, we need to get the manufacturing side onshore. If we’re decommissioning oil and gas we could recycle the steel and we could build jackets for turbines [...] it’s passing us by, that’s my biggest fear: where is this transition and when’s it happening?’.
For Ewan, the lack of public ownership or territorial control is a key part of the conundrum now facing offshore workers who might want to transfer their skills into Scotland’s growing renewables sector:
‘Why is it that the French government can actually have wind farms off the coast of Scotland but neither Scotland nor the UK sees fit to take on similar operations? That also then has an effect on the supply chains and means that high-value-added components are taken to Scotland simply to be assembled here from elsewhere in Northern Europe. It also means that often more of the production is being done in, say, Bangladesh or the Middle East, they’ve got turbines being dragged around the world at considerable environmental cost.’
The lack of manufacturing jobs and the infrastructure that can support them onshore has seen former mine workers and former oil workers watch in disbelief as components for new wind farms are brought by barge from low-wage countries in the Global South to be installed in the waters off the east coast.
For Jake, this is part of a wider question about the ways in which the profits from the oil machine have been hoarded rather than shared out for the common good:
‘Workers from different parts of the world are being exploited in that way to develop our future energy resources – and yet we are paying more and more and more year on year on year. [...]
Where you’ve got access to the natural resources that we’ve got as a country, you cannot tell me that we should have families, pensioners, kids living in fuel poverty.’